Canadian Commentary: Media and Culture: Notes

Corcoran watch

What crazy things did Terence Corcoran say while he was writing his column in the Globe and Mail's Report on Business? This page was dedicated to a running commentary on some of his more absurd pronouncements.

Oct. 29, 1998

Well, it's good-bye to Terence Corcoran at the Globe. He has taken up the position of business editor for Conrad Black's new National Post. Since I have no intention of reading the Post on a regular basis, I will wrap up this running commentary on his rants. Corcoran will be much more at home at the Post, where everyone else will also have been hired because they are off their rocker, and people are less likely to let facts get in the way of their ideological preoccupations. Of course, it's not clear what will happen to Diane Francis, the almost as right-wing editor of the former Financial Post. She is currently "editor-at-large", meaning that the business pages of the Post have a communal, co-operative editorship! Such a leftish situation cannot last. Presumably the competition will be good for both of them, and we look forward to the eventual triumph of the über-editor, emerging victorious from the fight with the mangled corpse of the vanquished pretender at his or her feet.

The contestant who will benefit most from Corcoran's move, however, is the Globe. It has replaced him with someone who actually thinks and does reasearch, Eric Reguly, whose first column criticized CN for its treatment of its workers - a truly refreshing change! But perhaps the most telling signal of Corcoran's departure was the Globe's front-page admission a few weeks ago that Global Warming, which Corcoran spent innumerable column inches trying to prove did not exist, was a scientific fact. It was, effectively, a middle-finger salute to Corcoran on his way out.

Jan. 21, 1998

Corcoran has been ranting for months about the evils of attempts to stop global warming. He claims there's no proof it is actually happening, and that controls on carbon emissions would be both too expensive and infringements on sovereignty.

There is no way of knowing whether our recent spate of weather disasters - floods, grass fires, ice storms - are caused by global warming. But they do demonstrate just how insanely expensive variable and disastrous weather is. Far more expensive, in fact, than would be the implementation of limited controls on carbon emissions. Even Alberta should be starting to realize this by now, as its agriculture industry (which is almost as important as its oil industry) begins to be undermined by freak weather patterns. If there's any truth at all to the global warming theory (and thousands of scientists, not to mention the insurance industry, are starting to think there is), the recent weather damage should demonstrate that controls would be hugely cost-effective.

As for the question of sovereignty, global controls on emissions operate on precisely the same principles as global agreements on trade, which are supported by Corcoran. They prevent an individual country from getting unfair economic advantages by behaving irresponsibly compared to other nations. World trade agreements prevent one country from protecting its own industries while exporting to more open countries, a practice Corcoran vehemently attacks; similarly, a global environmental agreement prevents one nation from giving its own polluters an easy ride while polluting the atmospheres of more responsible nations. The principle is the same; and, as the recent weather has demonstrated, the economic rewards are equally significant.

January 1998

On the last day of 1997, Corcoran wrote an article in which he pointed out that rapid economic growth was helped by rapid population growth, and that one of the reasons growth was slower these days was that the population was not increasing as rapidly. This provided him with an opportunity to attack those environmentalists who worry about overpopulation. Population is good, he claimed, because it leads to growth.

This argument is classic Corcoran. Obsessed with numbers and with economic expansion, he completely misses the point: growth is good when it increases the wealth of all individuals within the population. If an economy only grows because there are more people in it, no-one is actually better off - so what is the point? If your economy grows 2% but your population only grows 1% a year, you're better off than a nation whose economy grows 4% but whose population also grows 4% a year. This is why indicators such as GDP per capita are just as important as raw GDP when judging the economic performance of a nation.

Nov. 9, 1997

The Toronto Sun's front-page campaign against its owners, Ontario's teachers, during the recent Ontario teacher's strike, reminds me of a column Corcoran wrote some months ago in which he lambasted the teachers for floating the idea of trying to have some influence on the Sun's editorial positions. One notes that he did not write such a column when Conrad Black appointed a new editor sympathetic to his views to the Montreal Gazette, or forced all of his newspapers to carry his wife's column. Of course, Corcoran actually AGREES with Conrad Black's opinions.

Really, Corcoran's whining was rather childish. In a free-market system, newspaper owners can interfere with their paper as much as they want. It's their right - the newspaper it their property. That's capitalism! That's the whole point of the system Corcoran spends all of his time defending. It looks like it took the unusual situation of a union owning a newspaper to make Corcoran suddently aware of some of the drawbacks of the capitalist system. If the fact that people who don't agree with him now own a newspaper bothers Corcoran, perhaps he should re-examine his unthinking support for the free-market system and property rights. If he chooses to continue his worship of unfettered free enterprise, he should be true to his principles and wholly endorse the teacher's right to interfere with their newspaper in any way they see fit.

Capitalism, Terence: love it or leave it.

July 2, 1997

In his column on Hong Kong, Corcoran makes an astonishing statement. He claims that the story that Hong Kong was taken as part of a British move to force the opium trade on China is a "terrible distortion. Opium was certainly a product shipped by the British to China from India, but it wasn't the primary motivation for the British confrontation with China. The first British objective was free trade in all products and open ports into China, a policy the inward-looking Chinese dictators opposed." So, he implies, the war really wasn't unjustified at all.

This argues two mind-boggling points of view:

1) That trade in an illegal, addictive, mind-altering drug is acceptable as part of a wider free-trade network. I look forward to the column in which he argues that cocaine should be traded duty-free in the upcoming Pan-American free trade area.

2) That it is all right, even justified, to invade a sovereign nation in order to impose free trade. A fine example of neo-conservative ideology taken to its most ridiculous limits. No doubt, if Canada had refused the Free Trade Agreement, he would have encouraged the Americans to invade Canada and impose it on us anyway.

[Postcript: a couple of weeks later, Marcus Gee wrote an article making exactly the same points, but in an even more extreme manner (a remarkable feat). He argued that, although opium had been made illegal by the Chinese government, exporting it to China was acceptable because it was bought and sold by Chinese merchants. One might point out that cocaine is bought and sold in the U.S. by American "merchants". Presumably we should add Gee to the ranks of columnists who believe that cocaine should be part of pan-American free trade.]

June 27, 1997

Corcoran decided to spend a week attacking what he called "junk science". It is not clear how exactly a business journalist gained the scientific expertise to so categorically dismiss the work of thousands of scientists, but this did not stop him. In fact, of course, his judgements were not based on science at all, but rather on his own ideological prejudices (if it hampers business, it is junk); ironically, this is precisely the sin that he attributes to those whom he accuses of junk science. Rather than discrediting the environmental movement, his columns provided us with a fine example of real junk science in action: using unscientific grounds, accept whatever suits your prejudices, and ignore or attack anything that doesn't.

June 21, 1997

Corcoran was predictably happy that the McLibel trial in England went in favour of McDonald's. Fair enough. He then went on to claim that this outcome discredited the entire environmental movement! What an absurdity. As if the rantings of a couple of nutters with no affiliation to any serious organization in any way reflects on the broader movement. This is like saying that the collapse of one particularly unsavoury corporation, Bre-X, means that the entire capitalist system is discredited. One could just as easily say that because Terence Corcoran claims to speak for business, and routinely makes ridiculous statements, nothing any businessman says is worth listening to.

Corcoran goes on to claim that this is a genuine victory for McDonald's. Let us review the facts. The defendants were a couple of kooks from an unknown organization who were handing out leaflets - the type of people that everyone routinely avoids on the street. No-one paid attention to their claims; no-one who ever ate at McDonald's would ever have believed them in the first place. As a result of the trial, many people throughout the world were exposed to their claims. No-one will have changed their mind as a result of the verdict: those who believed will continue to believe. The only thing the trial did accomplish was to confirm the more believable claims: that McDonald's food is not nutritious, and that McDonald's treats it employees badly. Did anyone who mattered think that McDonald's poisoned people or deliberately destroyed rainforest? Of course not. So the trial, at no cost to the defendants (who have no money anyway), enabled them to accomplish their original goal, to publicize their accusations. The verdict, reached after over a year, merely confirmed what anyone reading the pamphlet worked out in five minutes: McDonald's is not a nice corporation, but the pamphlet is too extreme. Plus, McDonald's was exposed to worldwide ridicule for its over-reaction. This is a pretty Phyrric victory, if it can be called a victory at all.

Corcoran ends by piously hoping that the world's media will publicize the verdict as much as they did the trial. But really, no-one cared about the substance of the allegations - the story was the David vs. Goliath contest of two unemployed nuts versus a huge corporation. That they were going to lose was a given all along, and so it's not a story. The image that will linger is not that McDonald's was justified, but rather that it could get seriously challenged by a couple of radicals with wild accusations (note that the picture above the Globe story was of the two defendants, looking triumphant). That is why, whatever the eventual judgment, this was not a victory for McDonald's.

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